Tony Soprano is one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters in the history of television. Understanding him psychologically is a difficult proposition, although in many of the shows other characters have proffered some ideas. In one early episode, Dr. Melfi’s husband Richard refers to Tony as Alexithymic, the short definition being “the inability to talk about feelings due to a lack of emotional awareness.” This definition is definitely somewhat accurate, as Tony often reacts with rage during periods of confusion and frustration.
One classic example of this comes when Tony enters his office and sees that someone has purchased a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” and placed it on his desk. Seeing the singing fish reminds Tony of his dream about Big Pussy, and this memory floods Tony with multiple emotions that he is unable to process or understand. Tony reacts to this emotional flooding by beating Georgie, (A favorite pastime) who he learns placed the fish in his office, as this choice allows him to temporarily exorcise his uncomfortable feelings through this physically violent reaction.
At one point Dr. Melfi suggests Tony has an Anti-Social Personality Disorder. People with this disorder often show a persistent pattern of conduct disorder in their teen years which involves breaking the law, poor academic performance, disrespect for authority as well as several other more severe criteria including torturing animals and starting fires. Throughout the series, we learn several things about Tony’s younger years. In Season 1, we learn from Uncle Junior and Livia that Tony and his friends stole a car, and also that Tony used to sell stolen lobsters in an effort to earn some extra cash. In another episode we see him skipping school, breaking into his father’s car, and generally being very willing to bend the rules.
Skip to Tony’s teen years and we learn that Tony has become good enough at sports to become a “varsity athlete” despite Junior’s claim that he wasn’t. He graduates from High School and attends Seton Hall for a semester and a half before he “got into some trouble” (revealed to Meadow during the episode “College”) and goes to prison for a short while. While Tony is insisting to Dr. Melfi that he never engaged in Homosexual activities, we learn his time in prison was relatively short, and we can therefore assume his crime was relatively minor. Around this same time, Tony robbed Feech Lamana’s card game, which was a major turning point in his life where he became officially respected as a gangster.
From this brief look at Tony’s adolescence, we learn he probably did meet many of the characteristics for conduct disorder but possibly not enough to make a firm diagnosis. This moves us to the diagnosis of Anti-Social personality disorder, which according to the DSM-IV, involves “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
- The individual is at least age 18 years.
- There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15 years.
- The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or a Manic Episode.
So, does Tony meet at least three of these criteria? The answer seems to be that yes of course he does. Although he does not seem to meet the criteria for number 6, there have been multiple examples of his actions meeting the criteria for the other 6 components. But does this diagnosis truly encapsulate Tony Soprano? It doesn’t appear to. The fact is that Tony is capable of unselfish and extremely generous acts, although often these actions have ulterior motives. Therefore to truly get a sense of the patterns of Tony Soprano’s life, it is extremely useful to use an Adlerian model to examine the patterns of his basic convictions. The Adlerian model looks at key components of a person’s life, and also at their early recollections in an attempt to examine several key determinants that Adler believed made up a person’s unique lifestyle.
Gender Role Preparation Perceived through Gender Guiding Lines and Role Models
Through observing their parents and the gender patterns they adopt in their relations, a person learns to conceptualize a personal definition of what a man is and what a woman is. From watching his father, “Johnny Boy” Soprano, a respected and feared Mafioso, Tony formed several impressions of what it is to be a man. First and foremost Tony learned that the man is the breadwinner in the family and that he needs to do whatever it takes, regardless of the law, to provide for his family.
Tony also learned a great deal about conflict resolution from watching his father deal with people from around the neighborhood. One particularly important observation was watching his father handle a man named Satriale who had been avoiding him because he owed him a debt. When Tony watches his father chop off the man’s finger as a result of this dispute, Tony formed an early impression that a man goes to any lengths, despite the law, when that man owes him a debt. This impression was again confirmed when he watched his father brutally pummel a neighbor named Rocco, who also owed Johnny a debt.
Tony also learned a great deal from watching his father’s work habits throughout the years, and this affected his own adult attitude toward work. The beatings Tony witnessed in the previous situations were both over an attempt to collect a debt, and Tony saw that a great deal of Johnny’s income was simply taken by force or the threat of violence. Therefore he learned that men don’t need to work if they can take things from others, and this was a lesson that appeared to resonate.
In one notable event that occurred in Tony’s teen years, he covers for his father to his mother when she correctly assumes he’s been with another woman. In this situation, Tony, who has most likely learned through watching his father lie many times before, that it’s OK for a man to lie when confronted with an uncomfortable situation.
Through Tony’s interactions with his mother, he learned that a woman, although she works in the home, holds a great deal of power and control in interpersonal relationships. One early impression came from watching his father and mother interact after his father brings home a large order of meat, and Tony observes that this was the only time his mother was ever really happy. Tony also makes the connection that when his father brought gifts it was “probably the only time he got laid” which also created the impression for Tony that a woman only provides sexual gratification to men when they are given gifts, and this was an idea that also seemed to translate to his adult life.
Interpersonal Style Perceived through Experience of Family Atmosphere
The family atmosphere in the Soprano family was one of storm and strife. As Tony’s sister Janice correctly explains to her husband Bobby, “In my family, it was dog eat dog.” This was an accurate description of the Soprano household, and much of this difficulty stemmed from the interactions between Livia and Johnny which were based on repetitive patterns of incessant nagging on Livia’s part and extreme deceit on Johnny’s. Livia’s tyranny over the house may have even eventually contributed to Johnny’s physical decline, as in Tony’s estimation she wore this very strong man into a “little nub.”
Livia Soprano’s love was conditional love. Livia was extremely critical of her children and she did not demonstrate encouragement and support of their endeavors which appeared to stimulate a lifelong pattern of self-doubt in both Tony as well as his sister Janice. Discouraged children often grow up to be angry and unfulfilled adults, as they begin to feel that everything they do will not live up to someone’s standards. In these situations, a kind of “learned helplessness” (Seligman 1965) can take place, where kids simply give up rather than continue to compete in a seemingly hopeless situation. This appeared to be the case with Janice Soprano, who spends a lifetime avoiding any kind of useful activity rather than having to be judged a failure as she has done so many times before.
Tony on the other hand compensated for this lack of love like his father did by lashing out at others, finding temporary gratification through many sexual conquests, and finding solace in acquiring material possessions.
Livia also talked openly about killing her children when Tony was a young man, which he must have seen as a great devaluation of his importance and worth in his mother’s life. In one notable instance, Livia tells Tony she could “smother him with a pillow” which terrifies Tony and makes him question how far his mother might really go in enforcing punishment in the Soprano household. Johnny Soprano on the other hand freely used corporal punishment in the house, and in Tony’s words, “the belt was his favorite child development tool.” Johnny clearly demonstrated through many of his actions in the house that violence was an appropriate response to frustration, and this was also a value that Tony seemed to inherit.
Johnny Soprano was also consistently deceitful in his dealings with his family, and his constant deceit was often the trigger that sent Livia flying into a rage. One early example of Johnny’s deceit came following his arrest at a kid’s carnival, where he tells his children the cops made a terrible mistake and arrested the wrong guys, which would be difficult for even a child to believe.
Another important event that confirms Johnny’s constant deceit occurred when Tony was a teenager and Livia was in the hospital having suffered a miscarriage where she was in dire physical danger. Johnny, who was staying overnight with his mistress, concocts an elaborate lie that hinged on Tony supporting the lie and confirming the story for his hospitalized mother. Tony does go along with the lie, and this event is marked as the major turning point where he embraces the deceitful lifestyle and begins to head down the path his father has paved for him.
Personal Code of Conduct Perceived through Acceptance / Rejection of Family Values
When Tony embraced his father’s lying ways, he was essentially accepting the Soprano family values, all of which were also modeled by Tony’s Uncle Junior. Although Tony made a brief attempt at following a different path by going to college, his robbery of Feech Lamana’s card game demonstrated an early lesson learned from his father that if someone wants something it is easier to simply take it from others than to actually work for it. This idea was strongly reinforced when Tony was caught for this act and he was not only not punished, but in effect promoted into the “family” following this brazen and irresponsible action.
For Tony the term “family values” obviously had more than one meaning, but upon close examination the values modeled in the Sopranos household were the same that were necessary to survive and even thrive in the mafia “family” Tony was also a part of. For instance, Livia used the threat of killing someone weaker than her to retain order in the house and get people to comply with her wishes. The exact same thing is used by the mafia family, as the threat of pending violence is one of the key ways the family perpetuates its wealth.
The family value of deceit in the house was also a necessary value to succeed in the larger Mafia family. The code of “Omerta” implies silence and avoidance of even discussing the organization, and this is an interesting connection to make considering the fact that Livia was so against Tony going to therapy as she felt he was there to “talk about his mother.” Livia, who preferred the family secrets stay buried, was so consumed by feelings of anger from thinking that Tony would reveal her secrets to a therapist, that she, in essence, convinced Junior to have him killed. Returning to the moment of the idea Tony is Alexithymic, one can speculate that this condition might stem from his mother’s absolute inability to promote the sharing of feelings in the Soprano household.
Perspective on the World Perceived through Experience of Psychological Birth Order
As the second-born child of three, Tony’s assumed the position of the classic middle child. The second-born child often takes their cues from the oldest child, who has been in the world longer and provides a roadmap for the second child to follow. Second-born children are often the rebels in the family, as the firstborns tend to be responsible and can often even be like a second parent. The second child therefore often finds belonging through acting distinctively different from the first, as the first is naturally better at things because of their advanced age and physical development. This was partially true in Tony’s case, as Janis appeared to enjoy flaunting her position as the eldest, and at least in her early childhood convinced her father she was a well-behaved and accomplished child. Tony on the other hand showed immediate rebellious behavior and found belonging through being as Junior described a “little hellion” who learned to fit in and get attention through misbehavior.
Adler made a strong point of emphasizing that birth order also had a psychological component to it, where the literal birth order may differ from the physical birth order. This can happen when the firstborn son usurps the firstborn female child and becomes the de facto leader of the children, as he comes from a culture that values males over women. This dynamic appeared to manifest itself in the Soprano household. In Tony’s case Janis, who enjoyed the power of being the firstborn but not the responsibility, in effect passed the torch of responsibility as the firstborn to Tony, who became responsible for the family as he entered into adulthood.
Range of Social Interest Perceived through Other Particularities
Adler believed that the extent and degree that a person takes an interest in his or her fellow human beings was an excellent predictor of their mental health. Tony never developed this interest in others, and instead came to value others based on their personal usefulness to him. There are many examples of this in Tony’s life, one example being his relationship with Paulie, who fell out of Tony’s favor following a financial downturn in Season 4. Even in his dealings with Artie Bucco Tony often sizes up how Artie can be useful to him, and despite their imbalance of power, Tony finds little ways to exploit this friendship for his personal gain.
Tony’s odd obsession with animals also demonstrates his inability to share emotions with other human beings, and again this behavior might have some of its roots in the lack of love and support he received from his mother. Tony often projects feelings onto animals that he is unable to feel for human beings, and this trait shows how confusing and upset Tony gets when confronted by negative emotions.
In conclusion, Tony Sopano’s life is one lived with little insight or mindfulness. This lack of insight has led to an external locus of control where he views the bad things that happen to him as bad luck His statements “I can’t catch a break” and “I’m like King Midas in reverse” are examples of this behavior, and these claims don’t jibe with the many, many fortuitous events in Tony’s life.
Tony also likes to present the idea that he is a “sad clown” but again the evidence in his life does not seem to support this. When Tony is angry or hurt he nearly always responds with physical violence, and occasionally with emotional violence such as when he calls Melfi a “cunt” following her rebuke of his advances. The sad clown motif indicates the sense of pity Tony often feels for himself, and his general pessimistic attitude towards life.
Adler felt that by gaining insight into your behavior you could begin to understand the patterns and faulty thinking and logic that these patterns then created. Melfi, after many years, has uncovered some of these patterns but doesn’t seem to offer much assistance as to how to process this information. The result has been that Tony continues to repeat many of the patterns directly inherited from watching his parents, and despite his often empty promises to change his life, this is really not possible without going back to the beginning.
Adler referred to this idea as “soft” determinism, meaning a person’s patterns of behavior were firmly and deeply entrenched, and very, very difficult to change without a tremendous amount of insight. Although nearly dying was a kind of apotheosis for Tony, it is likely he will return to much of his former behavior as he falls back into these familiar patterns.